>MEENA & ME by Spell#7

>reviewed by arthur kok

>date: 3 mar 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the black box
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Hardly a spell#7 production goes by without provoking the "wow" followed by the more telling "what's it all about". Stunning in its conception and performance, MEENA AND ME is yet another piece where you are simply not supposed to get the whole picture.

Too bad then for those expecting the usual ribaldry and vile jokes. Many undoubtedly came expecting that and more. Need you ask why? Because the performance features Kumar. Yes, that ever effervescent drag-Queen of The Boom Boom Room (and best forgotten Ra Ra Show). Save the initial television interlude where Kumar was allowed to be himself, however, the rest of the play was, in his words, "Cheem cheem".

Thought up more as a collection of scenes, MEENA AND ME brings together "Pekeezah" (a classic Indian film) with other 'texts' conceived by resident directors Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan. These scenes, however, are not related in any chronological or narrative sense. Rather they are suggestive of each other, in the way they mutually add to, critique and comment. Which explains why the performance was thoroughly 'hard to get at'. Anticipating this reaction, the directors offer: "Don't try to 'get the whole picture'. In this age of reproduction, translation and cross-cultural complexity, there is no 'original print'". Indeed, the entire piece frustrates any attempt to ascertain an overarching plot, or 'the real thing'. The reasons follow:

>>'Despite the difficulty in comprehending the play, it is easy to laud it.'

MEENA AND ME spans a few time periods each overtaking the previous one in no particular order. Interlocking scenes range from love games between a pair of flight officers to feudal-patriarchal negotiations to the lone figure Help coming to terms with his past. Thus a confusing non-sequential scenic structure whereby attempts by the audience to 'follow' are foiled.

This scenic disjointed-ness is further complicated by the actors inhabiting indeterminate roles. Because they literally walk in and out of different roles on stage, one cannot say for certain when each actor is who. For instance, Netty Montenegro morphs from flight crew lover, to an old woman to even a stage hand. Likewise, Kumar switches from commentator, puppeteer, tragic dancer to script reader. Perhaps it is an attempt to alienate the audience and make us keenly aware of the play-acting process and its artifice.

The scenic structure and content also suggest the shifting, uncertain boundaries of identity. Help (Enlai Chua) epitomises the negotiation with given identity (and hence role) best. His name 'Help' is first conceived and bestowed his lover. However, upon separation, Help has to re-figure himself. Through the course of the play, therefore, Help struggles to move from -- in his words -- H (help, hypochondriac, has-been) back to G (got-the-girl). In this way, Help attempts to create a self which is independent of his lover. His ironic laughter in the final scene, however, ambiguates the results of his endeavour.

Despite the difficulty in comprehending the play, it is easy to laud it. Spell#7's approach takes on a commendable gloss largely thanks to the dedicated cast. In addition, the group's multi-media signature is used once again to good effect: especially when Kumar is made a disembodied face on a mobile TV set, suggesting the virtual space (and reality) of contesting time periods and narratives.

One reservation though: for the majority of the play, one does not leave with any tangible idea of what is developing or meant to develop. In this respect, spell#7's focus on the tangential and the incoherent (and thus rejection of linear plotting) epitomises contemporary 'ground-breaking' theatre. Yet, one questions where all this is taking theatre practise. Can it move beyond the vogue-ish blanket of post-modernism to induct something fresh? That is the challenge.